trees aerial view

April is national poetry month. How many are clinking their glasses and toasting the old girl?

Some may agree with the poet W.H. Auden who once declaimed in a poem about the deceased Irish poet Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.”

Susan McCaslin, who won the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Prize from the Alberta Book Publishers Association for Demeter Goes Skydiving in 2012, made something happen. By poetry, no less. She saved a forest, or a good portion of it. With WOLF (Watchers of the Forest at Langley), her husband Mark and fellow poets, artists and activists she helped save 60% of the McLellan Forest East in Langley, British Columbia from the developer’s axe. There is a strong possibility that the remainder of the forest – including a wetlands – will also be saved.

Here’s how she tells the story of poetry and the trees:

“Last Thanksgiving, I discovered that Glen Valley in Langley still had some mature rainforest. This discovery was bittersweet, however, as I also learned the Township of Langley was planning to sell it off to raise funds to build a recreation centre.”

(As Robert Bateman was to say later, “What’s a better recreation centre than a forest?”)

“Throughout my life, since the times when I marched against the Vietnam War, I had often wondered what it would take to transform me – a quiet, contemplative poet – into someone more socially and politically engaged. As we walked under the canopy of Douglas fir, Western red-cedar, and hemlock, the light filtered down on us through the branches of deciduous trees. We stepped over maidenhair, sword, and liquorice ferns, then paused at the base of a giant Black Cottonwood, a tree said to be hundreds of years old. I knew that this was it. I’d fallen in love with a forest and become an activist.”

McCaslin began her initiative to persuade the town council that the best way to sustainable progress was to keep the beauty and ecological majesty of what nature had given to the community. She remembered the ancient Chinese poet Han Shan who wrote poems on rocks under red pines. She called her campaign the Han Shan Poetry Project in remembrance of the poet, the man to whom Jack Kerouac dedicated Dharma Bums.

What happens when the language of poetry rubs up against the language of business?

One way of looking at a forest is to see it as “inventory,” “surplus,” “idle land” or a “blank canvas”. Another way is to see it as beauty, peace, natural heritage and soul.

In the clash of visions, and the language we use to express our visions, poetry does remarkably well. Sometimes Auden is wrong. Sometimes poetry makes everything happen.

McCaslin put out a call for tree poems. “My calls soon appeared on people’s blogs and websites all over the world. Over 150 poems poured in within a week and a half and within two weeks the number had gone up to well over 200.”

The Han Shan Poetry Project was becoming The Little Engine That Could.

Susan and her husband “placed the poems in plastic paper protectors, threaded them with colourful ribbon and string, and with the help of WOLF, spent an afternoon festooning them on trees without harming a single branch.”

“Poems pirouetted like white angels. Heavy drops of rain, frost, sprigs of moss and bark covered them, appearing to be the forest’s way of claiming them. Poets had set their small gestures of creative expression beside the vaster creativity of nature. People were attracted from all over the Lower Mainland, strolling through the woods and pausing to read the poems. Local visual artist Susan Falk donated a painting to the ongoing work of WOLF. The Opus Women’s Choir came out to sing carols in the forest.”

Artists joined in, including a very famous one – Robert Bateman. The CBC covered the story, so did The Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun.

Poets such as Lorna Crozier wrote poems of great power especially for the Han Shan initiative:

Negative Space

The rush in the air as the tree falls
is the wingbeats of a thousand birds
that have nowhere to rest. It is the sound
of the wind-that-lives-in-branches
in mourning.

The space where the tree stood
is bigger than a poem can hold.
Its death is all the deaths
you’ve ever known.

Every door should have a wreath upon it.
Everyone who walks into the forest
should ink a darkness around their eyes.

Fortunately, death is not at the centre of Han Shan Poetry Project – life is.

Poetry, in the most beautiful and effective ecological initiative of which I am aware, saved a forest.

Susan McCaslin began by listening to her heart and then through poetry touched the lives of hundreds of people and the minds of town councillors.

Poetry’s green and sheltering word lives. It makes things happen.


– By J.S. Porter